‘John and Jen’ was heartfelt.
Brand new theatre company Queen Jean Productions deserves a standing ovation for its debut show, ‘John and Jen’.
This two-person musical is a mesmerising portrayal of the human condition. It tells the story through the song of Jen and the two Johns in her life – her brother and her son – as they grow together and apart. At first full of childhood innocence and imagination, defying the cruel world around them, the characters then question at what point in life does this wonder become a hindrance?; And how do they cope in a world full of continuous hellos and goodbyes?
Backdock Arts’ intimate venue was a wonderful choice for this production. The back of the stage was decked out with brightly patterned sheets and tablecloths of the flower power era, evoking travel and culture while retaining a homely environment. The majority of the show takes place in a house, setting the tone for the theme of escapism both the characters longed for at various points. The minimal set consisted of two armchairs and a footrest. Because the two actors rarely got respite for more than 30 seconds, the majority of costume embellishments and props were kept in a toy box upstage and utilised to further the narrative.
Lighting was effective for scene changes and heightened the emotional pull of scenes through spotlights on characters followed by an immediate blackout.
The music was mesmerising and character-centred. Sometimes musicals without dialogue can seem self-indulgent due to the character singing every thought However, composition by the legendary Andrew Lippa (‘The Addams Family’, ‘Big Fish’) and lyrics by Tom Greenwald meant the songs only furthered the plot and character progression as they age. The songs ranged from comedic (such as the [Jen has] ‘Trouble with Men’ as childish John tries to figure out what is going on with his older sister), to nostalgic, to heartbreaking. The band composed of Luke Volker (piano), Annie Silva (cello), Tony Dean (percussion) and musically directed by Timothy Forrester were seamless. This music fully transported the audience into the world of John and Jen.
The strength of Katie Swan’s direction was evident; despite the majority of scenes spent in similar theatrical spaces and mainly between two people, the blocking was never too repetitive. Only occasionally were the characters’ monologues predictable, as they stood square-on to the audience. But it suited the style and became an expected part of the plot progression, which made the audience feel like they understood the characters even more. An intriguing piece of direction was having Liam J O’Byrne (who played the two Johns) sitting on the toy box with his back to the filing-in audience, creating a strong sense of the pull to childhood wonder from the start. The toy box was a catalyst for change throughout the show. The fact he was wearing a simple white shirt evoked the idea of a clean canvas for the joys of childhood to spring forth from the possibilities that the toy box presented. However, due to not being able to see his face, this also created an ominous sense, which set the tone for the progressions to follow.
Choreography by Laura Greenhalgh was masterfully character-driven. Compared to musicals which have high-energy dance numbers, choreographing more intimate shows come with a unique set of challenges to keep the momentum. All choreography fit the scenes and allowed for comedic and emotional characterisation. In conjunction with Swan’s direction, this kept the story flowing. A clever piece of direction and choreography was when John and Jen are both interviewed by a talk show host (portrayed by the other actor) and they would seamlessly switch between characters as they switched between the host chairs and at times mingled with the audience. They also held up cards with “applause” or “laugh” on them, changing the theatre audience into a talk show studio audience.
Performers Lara Boyle and O’Byrne shone with a very natural chemistry as both sister and brother, and mother and son. They successfully aged-down their characters without ever feeling inauthentic.
As the two Johns, O’Byrne was endearingly earnest as a young brother and skilfully varied his performance over the ages, never replicating the same character when playing young son John. His silky vocals suited the repertoire; he was sincere and believable throughout.
Boyle as Jen was captivating in her progression from a child to a mother herself. A very nuanced performer, every action was deliberate and the many subtleties brought Jen to life. She provided a stoic presence throughout but skilfully adapted to each of Jen’s ages. Boyle’s voice sparkled and blended with Byrne’s beautifully. Their harmonies were magical.
Queen Jean Productions describes itself as “a production company that conveys compelling and captivating stories through theatre” and their debut show encapsulates this mission. All involved in ‘John and Jen’ should be highly commended for a heartfelt show.
‘John and Jen’ told their story for one weekend only. To keep up to date with the exciting new Queen Jean Productions company, follow their Facebook page.
Photography KD Photography